#livingmybestlife

You’ve probably seen, or used, #livingmybestlife a few times on social media. It’s a hashtag you’ll see with a picture of someone lounging on a white sand beach somewhere or visiting a new city. What exactly do you consider living your best life? My post-breast cancer self has thought about this question from a different perspective than I once did. The 20-something year old me viewed my best life as a destination that I was striving to reach. I thought I’d be living my best life just as soon as I put a check mark in all of the boxes that I’d outlined for myself. What’s the next step? What do I need to do to be able to check off that next box? I’ve been learning that being the best version of myself is not about exhausting myself trying to arrive at some perfect end destination; it’s about the day to day choices that I make to reflect, set goals, and pursue progress over perfection.

This Spring I completed a questionnaire at my oncologist’s office and was pretty shocked at my honest responses about how I felt about myself. I had so many negative feelings about myself and they all resulted from my frustration with the effects that the cancer treatment had on my body. When I asked myself why I answered those questions that way, I knew it was because of this area of my life where I’d simply given up trying. So I made up my mind that I was going to stop hiding behind the excuses. A few weeks later, I walked into my first class at Orangetheory, not because I love working out, but because I was determined to make exercise a priority instead of something I did when I felt like it, i.e., never. Y’all, I have never run in my life. I don’t mean that I ran track in high school and it’s just been a while or that I used to run some mornings with a girlfriend a few years ago. I mean I have n-e-v-e-r run. But after a couple of months, I ran 1.593 miles in 23 minutes. I’m fully aware that this is not at all an impressive distance to run in that amount of time, but the smile that came across my face when I watched 1.499 change to 1.500 was about so much more for me than just those numbers. After three years of all of the excuses you could imagine (which eventually turned into just plain laziness), this was the first time that I finally made up my mind to set a goal, and the first time that I didn’t simply give up when I didn’t reach it. You see, there were actually two different times that I got that day. During my first class that morning, and the only one I planned to take, I ran 1.456. When I wrote my name on the wall under my distance, I was the only person who didn’t get to 1.5 miles. I walked out feeling defeated and disappointed in myself. But I quickly said to myself, “Well, at least you came to class. At least you ran and you’re not walking anymore. Yay you!” But, I knew without a doubt that I didn’t really try as hard as I could have. I knew that I didn’t push myself at all and that I was just trying to get through without a real goal in mind. It took me most of the day to talk myself into going back. Every time I would be close to committing to a second class, a new, creative “At least I…” would pop into my head. “It’s ok, at least I went this morning. At least I’ve been committed to going consistently.” At least, at least, at least….but then I realized that telling myself those things wasn’t serving me at all. All it was doing was keeping me stuck. It’s those very things that have kept me feeling frustrated for the past 3 years. Six months after chemo it was “Well I’m unhappy with the 20 pounds that I gained, but at least the cancer is gone!”  As I rummaged through the pantry looking for Oreos at 10pm, “Well at least I ate a salad for lunch.” Not only did breast cancer wreak havoc on my body, but it also left me with some pretty solid excuses that I could continue to hide behind. I have used them all – Why exercise and eat better when the Tamoxifen halts my metabolism anyway? My upper body strength is basically nonexistent and I can barely do a modified push up from all of the surgeries. I could go on and on. It was way too easy to fall into complacency and tell myself that I was doing all that I could. I reached a point where I gave up on trying to feel better. Progress and small victories weren’t anything I was interested in, I needed results and if I couldn’t see them in the form of a fabulous before and after photo ASAP, then it wasn’t even worth it to try. Basically I was just hanging out and telling God that it was no use, He’d done all that He could do in this area of my life. I am so thankful that the Lord convicted me and has helped me to fight back against these lies. That afternoon I went back and proved to myself that I could do it. The victory for me in my turtle-paced run was not the time or distance at all. It was in the fact that I set a goal and I actually pushed for it, instead of being complacent and avoiding the hard work by letting my head be filled with all of the “At least I…” statements that have kept me from putting forth any effort in this area for the past 3 years. I am still not very fast, but I’ve stopped comparing myself to the person next to me on the treadmill. I don’t focus on how much slower I am or how much lighter my weights are. Even if I’m using lighter weights than the person next to me, I keep pressing those weights over my head and every time I think about all of the weeks after surgery that I wasn’t even able to pull myself up out of the bed. When I went for my 4-month checkup at the oncologist last week, I had a much better outlook than I had when I completed that questionnaire in March. I was finally able to confidently tell and show her that I’d really been putting in the effort to get healthy and feel better about myself.IMG_5889

Through this process of trying to get healthier, I have been learning that our life here on this earth is not about becoming the perfect person. It’s not about becoming the perfect wife, friend, mom, boss, employee, or any other role. But it is about the day to day journey of growing into the person that God wants us to be, being able to look at ourselves and see more of Christ. It’s about the progress, no matter how slow it comes or how hard it is to see. It is not about reaching some magical destination of perfection; I’m not going to open my eyes one morning and say, “Today is the day! I’ve arrived at the best version of myself. Check that box.” Process over product. This reminds me of what we early childhood educators call process art. With process art, the process is more important than the finished product. These are the things that your child has brought home and you’ve looked at it thinking “Wow, that is a total mess. Why in the world would his teacher send home something that looks like this? Definitely won’t be going on the fridge.” But what you don’t see when you look at the product is all of the little lessons that he learned as he worked on it. You don’t see the fine motor skills that he was practicing as he squeezed the bottle of paint, or the early literacy skills that he was working on as he discussed the names of new materials. You can’t look at that piece of paper and see the counting he practiced as he placed each acorn in the box, or those inquiry skills that he was developing as he asked questions and made predictions while mixing colors. And years later, when he is a successful reader, you might not realize that much of this can be attributed to those building blocks that were laid during experiences like the artwork that you furrowed your brow at years ago.

What if that is how God looks at us? What if God isn’t concerned about the product, a perfect person, but about the process – our day to day life and how willing we are to let Him mold and chisel us so that when we look in the mirror we see more of Christ? What if it is really about celebrating the small victories every day and not about beating ourselves up when we fall short. When I become overly focused on the end result, it is so easy for me to become discouraged and throw my hands up. If I don’t see change, or even progress, instantly, I think it’s only logical to just quit. This happened with my desire to get healthy and it happens at other times too. Somewhere along the way, I began to believe that if I brushed up against any adversity – in a relationship, in a career path, even in trying a new hobby – that it simply must not be meant for me to do that thing. Too hard, not for me. Time to move on to something else (or stay stuck and sulk about my lack of ability). It happens every single time I go diving. Diving just doesn’t come naturally to me and there always seems to be something that makes a dive difficult for me – I don’t have enough weight on, my ears won’t clear, I get a nosebleed. I seriously spent my first dive a couple of weeks ago thinking about all of the reasons that I was going to sit on the boat during the next dive because I just couldn’t have the smooth, perfect dive that I wanted. So I’ve realized that I’ve got to shift my focus – my goal has to be progress, not checking a box. I have to accept that I am a work in progress. We all are; not one of us is currently the best version of ourselves. No matter how many things that you think you’ve got all figured out, there is always more that you can learn. Always more to discover about yourself, about loving and serving others, about living out the gospel. It truly is about the day to day journey and not about some end destination.  This can be a pretty unsettling concept for the perfectionist in me. What do you mean I can’t get it all right, all the time? I think this is why I tend to want to quit so easily when things get difficult. Instead I need to be asking myself how God might be using this to stretch me and help me to grow.

Please hear me when I say that working towards goals doesn’t mean that you aren’t content or don’t love yourself as you are. I believe that you can choose to find your contentment not in perfection, but in knowing that you are working towards God’s best for you.  It’s not about thinking you aren’t enough as you are, but about believing that God isn’t done with you yet. If you believe that God isn’t done with you, then you have to say yes to allowing Him to help you grow. Getting healthier was one area that I needed to work on, but that doesn’t mean it’s yours. My thoughts here certainly aren’t intended to make you feel like you need to lace up your running shoes and head out the door. Your goals to help you truly live your best life are unique to you. Maybe you need to work towards communicating better with your spouse or your children, maybe you need to work less and slow down, or maybe you need to take an honest look at the coping mechanisms that you use to handle stress.  My hope is that you might be encouraged to take the first step and celebrate progress in whatever part of your life where you want to see change, and most of all that you won’t let the fear of never measuring up hold you back from trying.  Philippians 1:6 says “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Claim and believe this. Commit to seeking progress and pursuing the best version of yourself, your best life.

 

 

 

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3 Years Later

Next Saturday marks 3 years since I heard the words “It’s cancer.” February 17, 2015 is a day that is forever etched in my mind. I can remember every detail of that day – leaving work early, sitting on the cold leather couch, and staring at my phone waiting for 2:30. When I saw the hospital’s number pop up on the screen, I wanted so badly to answer and to ignore it all at the same time. I can remember saying hello, waiting, listening, and then trying to catch my breath. I remember telling myself that I couldn’t drop the phone and swallowing hard to quiet my crying so that I could listen to what the nurse was saying. I tried to write down every single word that she said, words that I’d never heard before. I frantically flipped the pages of the legal pad as I struggled to make my hand keep up with her words. Then there were hours of Google searches, writing down questions, and making phone calls to my parents that I never wanted to make. I hadn’t even told them I was having a mammogram the day before, or that the radiologist asked me to come back an hour later for a biopsy after what he saw. I wanted to spare them the worry and fear that I was feeling and was holding out hope that I wouldn’t have to tell them that I had cancer.

The memories that I have of that day definitely don’t give me any warm fuzzy feelings, but every year as February 17th draws near, I reflect and let all of those little details come to the surface. I have hundreds of photos that we took in the weeks and months that followed – photos of shaving my head, trying on wigs, my last chemo treatment, and everything in between. I’ve had intentions of making a photo book with them but I’ve been avoiding it for a while because looking through all of those memories felt so heavy. When I finally decided to look through all of those photos last weekend, it felt surreal. I lived through all of it, but looking back at the photos – my bald head, the chemo chair, so many hospital beds, radiation burns – it is still hard to believe that I endured all of those things. I know without a doubt that it wasn’t by my own strength or determination, but that it was God’s love and grace that allowed me to put one foot in front of the other and take life one day, and often one hour or minute, at a time.

As the years pass and cancer becomes further and further away in the rearview mirror, I pause and take time to look back because it encourages me as I move forward. I found that it was so easy to trust and be completely dependent on God as I faced cancer. Watching all of the plans that I had shatter, it was so natural to look to God. As the vision that I’d had of spending the next few months planning our wedding crumbled the moment I answered that phone call, I was left with a new vision that was filled with all sorts of things that terrified me. It seemed that everyday there was a curveball and just when I began to think that I knew what tomorrow would hold, I was quickly reminded that I didn’t. I never knew what news the next scan or appointment would bring and I realized that my plan-loving Type A personality was going to be one of the first things I’d have to surrender. When I realized that I had no idea what any of my tomorrows would look like anymore, I began to cling to God’s promises and lean into Him with everything that I had. Now that life is “back to normal”, I’ve found it more difficult to just trust God’s process and take one step at a time. I’ve found myself wanting to hold on too tightly to my own plans and ideas of the way I think my life “should” be. I’m learning all over again that He has already written my story. It’s not up to me to plan it; it’s up to me to be still, to listen, and to follow His lead. I’ve had so many thoughts and feelings going through my mind lately that I’ve been trying to make sense of. There’s been a lot of talking to God and writing in my journal, but I decided to write here because I truly believe that God can use our stories. We may not know exactly how, but we just have to be willing to be vulnerable and transparent.

I have been wrestling a lot the past few months with fear and the possibility of the cancer returning. I know the statistics and I know that the greatest risk of recurrence is within the first 5 years. I know that my oncologist checks my bloodwork every 4 months and that I’m taking all of the medications that I possibly can in an effort to prevent a recurrence. But when I learn that a survivor friend has been told that the cancer is back, my emotions run wild. Sadness, fear, and even guilt start to creep in. I have wondered many times what it would be like to have go through it all again, and in October I was fearful that I would find out. I began having pain similar to what I felt when I was diagnosed and immediately called my doctor. I went in for a scan and waited nervously for the results. I wanted desperately to claim that it would be nothing and have faith in that, but after you have received that one phone call with news you were dreading, you know what a real possibility that is. There is no more naïveté of telling yourself there’s no way it could happen to you.  I was terrified because my plans told me that there should not be any more cancer. My plans told me that I should be cancer-free from here on out. This was not my first scan, but it was the first one that was not routine and that was initiated by me. Thankfully, the scan results came back clear, but it was a wake up call that if they had not, He is still good. The thought of having to face cancer again and all of my plans for the future being halted made me realize that I’d begun to hold on too tightly to those things again. Although today I am still cancer-free, the ultimate victory is not the healing –  the greatest victory of all is that I gained more of Jesus and that others did as well. The cancer is gone, my hair has now grown back past my shoulders, the burns have healed, and the reconstruction surgery was successful. For all of those things I am incredibly grateful. But I also realize that’s not what it’s about. That’s not what any of this was about. It was about so much more – and even if that means no happy ending, or a happy ending that looks very different than the way I would have written it. As one of my favorite people once said to me, “We know the ending is good because He is good.”

Another one of my struggles has been comparing myself to those around me and thinking that my story needs to look more like theirs, specifically, that it needs a baby in it. The fact that I’m 32 and still have several more years before we can try to have children has started to weigh heavy on my heart once again. I have had the desire in my heart to be a mom for as long as I can remember, so being told that we’d have to wait 5 years and the possible effects that chemo may have on that was something that I struggled with a lot in the beginning. I’ve had to rely on God to change my heart and my attitude with lots and lots of prayer. I have come a long way –  I’m not crying on the way home from baby showers anymore – but now that I’m walking through the middle of the 5 years it’s begun to feel more like I’m trudging uphill again. There are so many people that we love expecting little ones and it’s been so hard for me to shake this feeling that I’m being left behind.  There are days when I feel like I’m stuck in this season while everyone else is moving on into a new one. I believe that God placed the desire to be a mom in my heart and that He will fulfill it in His own perfect way and timing, not mine. I’m praying for grace as I work on choosing joy and being content in this season instead of wishing for the next one. I’m working on trusting His perfect plan for my life, and being ok with the fact that it looks different than what I think it should. If you are working on this too, my hope is that you’ll remember that God’s plan for you is not the same as His plan for your best friend or your sister or your neighbor, and that’s ok.

I still get frustrated with the little details of life after breast cancer. Dealing with menopause side effects at 32 is no fun, but they come along with the drugs that I take to prevent a recurrence. I have been known to declare on more than one occasion that it’s not fair for me to have to wake up all throughout the night with night sweats or to have hot flashes all day long. My hourly predicament is to feel the sweat dripping down my forehead in the middle of a conversation with someone and then have to decide whether or not to ignore it or wipe my face (both equally embarrassing).  I don’t want to have a body that is up against a metabolism that’s come to a screeching halt and that’s been through so many surgeries – I’d love to have my old body back. I’d rather not go sit in the waiting room at my plastic surgeon’s office one more time and getting a shot once a month (once even on my birthday) isn’t much fun either. In December, I had my 7th surgery in 3 years.

I’m not sharing my struggles to complain. I’m sharing them because that’s the real story.  The belief that God can use our stories was the basis for starting this blog 3 years ago. I knew soon after cancer became a part of my story that I was being called to write about my journey, but a public blog wasn’t exactly my idea. I was scared to be vulnerable, to share so much with so many. I was comfortable sharing with my close friends and family and leaving it at that. But God had other plans, as usual. Looking back on the past 3 years, I am able to see small glimpses of how He has used a terrible thing like cancer to accomplish so much good. I’ve seen hearts changed, relationships strengthened and restored, and what is even more incredible is that I know there are so many other ways that He has used this that I may never even know about.  Your story certainly doesn’t have to include cancer for God to be able to use it, but I do think He needs your willingness to be vulnerable. That’s not easy; it’s much easier to keep things surface level and make small talk about what’s going great in our lives than to really let people in and let them see the hard parts. Never underestimate how a 5 minute conversation can impact someone, if you’re willing to open up. I don’t know about you, but the stories that are raw, unfiltered, and real are the ones that impact me the most. Those are the conversations that I walk away from feeling renewed, encouraged, and uplifted. Those are the books that I can’t put down. Give me someone who is honest about their failures, mistakes, and fears. I need those people who don’t claim to have it all figured out but who share their struggles and their need for Jesus every single day. It is in those stories that I am able to see God’s grace, love, and faithfulness most clearly.

I look back on where I’ve been so that I can be reminded that no matter how bad things were, God gave me grace each and every day and was there providing provision for me all along the way. I’m reminded that I can trust Him to make a way when there seems to be no way and that I can take one step at a time even when the fog is so thick that I can’t see where my feet will land. His perspective is so much broader than mine; all I can see is where I am right now, today.  I can’t see the middle, but I can be assured that He can; He’s standing above it all. He is here now, in the middle of my current struggles, providing grace and provision. I can’t see the glimpses of grace that He’ll provide tomorrow, but I can trust that He will.

So on February 17th, I will celebrate 3 years. I will celebrate all of my story – the parts that are painful and sad, messy and complicated, sweet and wonderful, and the parts that I have yet to see.

 

Saying Goodbye

Saying goodbye to someone you love is hard. We all experience loss throughout our lives, sometimes it comes suddenly and other times we’ve seen it coming. Over the past year and a half, my family and I have had to say goodbye many times. In April of last year, my step-grandfather, Allen, passed away after a short illness. Then in November we lost Adam’s grandfather. In December, we had to have my fur baby of 12 years put to sleep. Then in March, my MeeMee left us to be with Jesus. Each one of those losses impacted me, and my family, in a tremendous way. Those people were so many different things to each of us. A grandmother, a mother, a sister, an aunt. A father, a friend, a grandfather, a brother. Although my Lexie was not a person, she was as much a part of our family as anyone else and had been my constant companion since I was a senior in high school.

Not having my MeeMee’s presence in my life has been especially difficult. The relationship that I had with her is one that I wish every girl could have with her grandmother and one that I will be forever grateful for.  Since she lived 3 hours away in Savannah for the last few years, I visited when I could and we settled for frequent FaceTiming (which she said was “magic”) and phone calls. One of my favorite last memories of her is last October when she, mom, and Aunt Carol visited us in Columbia. We rolled her wheelchair out onto our back porch and wrapped her in a blanket so that she could watch us carve pumpkins. She said she’d never seen the inside of a pumpkin before! The next day we took her to visit her sister and then bundled her up for a trip to the State Fair. She had a corn dog, marveled at all of the animals, and watched Hunter and I ride the swings. She was beaming, and so were we. A few weeks later she was in the hospital and was there until the day after Thanksgiving. We watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on TV together in her hospital room. She was released the next day and spent the next four months being loved on and cared for full time by her two daughters the most compassionate Hospice nurses. My mom and aunt truly showed us all what unconditional love and servants’ hearts looked like over the course of those four months. They gave of themselves, physically and emotionally, with no limits.

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Carving pumpkins – October 2016
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State Fair – October 2016

 

I am thankful for God’s perfect timing in allowing me to spend her last week on earth with her. Since it was my Spring Break, I was able to sit by her bedside everyday and hear her say “I love you, Laa Laa” over and over, probably hundreds of times, that week. I was able to paint her nails one last time and help pick out that last absolute perfect outfit, complete with flamboyant accessories and shoes of course, that she would wear. We had time to think through details and pick out flowers in her favorite colors. Though it was all heartbreaking and incredibly hard, it made my heart so full to know that the celebration of her life would be just what she wanted and such a true reflection of such an incredible woman. I left Savannah that Tuesday afternoon to come back to Columbia for my 3 month checkup appointment with my oncologist and to get my cast (from wrist surgery) removed. I’d planned to return on Friday as soon as the cast was off. A few hours after I got home Tuesday night, I got a call from my mom that she had begun to decline quickly, so I got in the car and headed back to Savannah. I remember praying throughout the 3 hour drive as I glanced back and forth at my GPS to see how many minutes were left. God, please wait 18 minutes before you take her. Give me 12 minutes. Don’t take her for 7 minutes. I threw my car in park and ran through the parking lot to the apartment, but my heart sank when I opened the door and saw my family. I knew she was gone. It was 12:35am, and she’d slipped away less than 10 minutes before I got there. I wasn’t there. If I just would’ve stayed earlier that day. If I hadn’t left to go back home for that appointment. If I had spent less time re-packing my bag that night and left ten minutes earlier. It was hard not to beat myself up over it, but ultimately I knew that I had to trust that God has His reasons and that it wasn’t in His plan for me to be there at that moment.

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Painting MeeMee’s nails – March 2017

As I write, it’s painful to think back on that night and that week. It’s hard to accept that she’s gone and to go on without her. This weekend I watched the video that we showed at her funeral for the first time since her service. It’s saved on my desktop so I see it all the time, but I’ve avoided watching it for all these months because I knew how much it would hurt. And it did. I ugly cried all the way through it. But after it was over, I felt a sense of peace. I felt closer to her and I remembered just how blessed I am to have called her mine for 31 years.  The video started as a slideshow that my cousin put together for her surprise 90th birthday party a few years ago. We all worked together to sort through hundreds of photos and choose the perfect songs to add. For me, it is a wonderful reminder of all that she was. It reminds me of her perseverance and faith through adversity. As a young woman, she experienced the death of an infant son, injuries resulting from a traumatic car accident, and then the sudden death of her husband at 59. Each of these trials on its own would have been devastating, and she faced all of them during her lifetime. If you take the time to watch this glimpse of her 93 years, I hope you might be encouraged by her.

Video: Remembering Gloria

There are voids left in my life that each of these lost loved ones once filled. There’s a sort of emptiness, an unbalanced, uneasiness that lingers. So many things about our lives have changed and routines that were so normal now are nonexistent. For Adam and I, there are no more Sunday dinners after church at Grandaddy’s house. For my mom and aunt, no more medicine to give or daily chats with the Hospice nurse. There are no more afternoon phone calls to my MeeMee. The list goes on and on and is different for each of us. There are those special parts of our day that didn’t seem very special at the time that we would give most anything to live just one more time. It is almost impossible not to get discouraged and sad when we dwell on all that we’ve lost. We can easily get stuck thinking about memories we won’t have the chance to make.  Though we miss our loved ones terribly, I think that living with these voids in our life reminds us that we can’t place our worth or identity in things of this world, including our families. We can love our people deeply, but we can’t allow our contentment to be dependent solely upon them. Our identity has to be found in Christ alone. Jesus has to be enough. Period. If He is, we can find hope even in the midst of loss and grief. We can trust that He will meet us where we are and help us to look at our lives from an eternal perspective and truly realize that we’re all only here for a brief moment. In Christ we can rest in the assurance that goodbye is not forever and that one day we will be together again in heaven.

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One of my favorite pictures of us taken on Mother’s Day 2015, the day she learned that I had breast cancer (and that I was bald!) This is how I will always remember her – vibrant and gorgeous!

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.   2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Keep Your Hands on the Plow

I started this post a couple of weeks ago and never finished or published it because it got too hard and I started second guessing whether to share it or not. Then yesterday’s sermon at church prompted me to revisit it. The message included John 9:62, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” There have been times in my life when I’ve struggled to keep my hands on the plow and my eyes forward. I’ve committed but I haven’t stayed committed. Those are the hard parts of my story, the ones I’m the least proud of, but also the ones that point to my need for grace and a redeeming Savior.

When I wrote my first post on this blog almost 2 years ago, I was nervous. Being the center of attention is not my thing and the thought of people, possibly even people I’d never met, reading about my life made me feel more vulnerable than I imagined it might. Part of me wondered if it was selfish to think that people really cared enough to want to read about my journey. I’m certainly not the first person to ever fight breast cancer. Now I have realized a deep love for writing but I still sometimes have those feelings and have prayed often about what to do with them. I met someone for the first time this fall who said she had always followed this blog and had been inspired by it. Her words reminded me why I chose to write and share my words publicly; if God can use my story to point someone else to His faithfulness, then it’s worth pushing through my insecurities.

One of the sweetest parts of last summer was having the opportunity to host a book study with a few girlfriends at our home. The first night that we met together, we intended to wrap things up in about an hour but ended up talking together for several more. We started sharing the hard things – the things that keep us awake at night, the insecurities, the deepest hurts that bring on the most tears. We didn’t judge one another and we didn’t offer a quick fix for anyone, we simply listened. As we said our goodbyes, we all agreed that the night had been so good for each of us. I realized that night how rare those types of conversations are. When we go to dinner with our closest friends or have girls’ nights we rarely bring up those hard parts of our stories. We think no one wants to hear about our struggles and we don’t want to bring down the mood, but I’ve realized how important it is to make a more conscious effort to be transparent and real with one another. I think the most valuable thing that we all walked away from that night with was that it was okay to have struggles and it was okay to talk to about them. We all left that night saying to ourselves, “Wow. She really isn’t perfect either. She doesn’t have it all figured out, and that’s alright.”

One of the hardest parts of my story, but one that I’ve begun to see as a tremendous opportunity to point to God’s grace and redemption, is the fact that I was married before. It’s common knowledge among my close friends and family, but it has often been something that is difficult for me to share with new people. When Adam and I met, I told him that I’d been married before the very first time we spent time together just the two of us. I just knew he was going to run for the hills so I figured it was best to go ahead and break the news before I got too attached. Obviously I was wrong on that one. I stressed out for weeks about telling his parents, and then the night that we decided I would tell them, Adam ended up talking for me because I started crying so hard. Looking back, there’s no telling what they thought we were about to tell them. We did a marriage book study last year with our Sunday School class and wouldn’t you know that the chapter we happened to be discussing the week we hosted at our house was the chapter on divorce. I seriously couldn’t believe that of all the chapters in the book, that chapter would be the one we would be leading the discussion on! I kept thinking throughout the night that I would find some opportunity to slip it into the conversation, but I never got up the nerve. I don’t know what exactly I thought was going to happen when I said it, but I was terrified. I didn’t think anyone would get up and walk out of our house, but I worried that they would think differently of me. The fear of being rejected can be incredibly strong.  For years my face would get hot when someone would make comments about divorce and divorced people. As time has gone on, I’ve realized that my failed marriage doesn’t define me. It is a part of my story, and though God didn’t cause it, He allowed it and He also used it to bring me to Christ.

I was raised as a Christian and have always believed in God, but it wasn’t until my first marriage fell apart that I really “got it” and made the decision to follow Christ. When I was a child, we were members of a Lutheran church and went most Sundays. I always got a new dress for Easter and we took pictures in the front yard. I said my prayers every night. I was home schooled 8th-12th grade with a Christian curriculum so I took Bible history courses and memorized scripture verses, even in Spanish. During those years, we traveled all over the country in an RV as my dad drag raced competitively. I also raced for a couple of years. We traded church pews for the seat of a 4-wheeler as we attended the church service on Sunday mornings at the race track  in whatever state we were in that particular weekend. The thought of my parents being disappointed in me was pretty much all the discipline I needed. I made good grades and finished college with a 4.0 GPA. I wasn’t perfect, but I sure tried to get as close as I could. I really thought I had it all figured out, and from the outside it probably looked like I did. Looking back, I realize that I thought of God as some distant power who was always watching me to be sure I didn’t do anything wrong. I thought as long as I followed all of the rules and was a “good girl” that my life would turn out perfectly. I never noticed a need for Jesus or grace in my life because I had it all under control on my own, or so I thought.

 

Change has always been scary and uncomfortable for me, so after high school, I wouldn’t even entertain the thought of going off to college. I lived at home all 4 years, attending a small campus in my hometown for 2 years and then commuting over an hour each way for the last 2 years. My parents divorced shortly after I began college and my mom and brother moved 2 hours away while I stayed behind and lived with my dad while finishing school. It was a very difficult time for me, for all of us, and I struggled to accept that we weren’t a family anymore. That still wasn’t enough to turn me to Jesus though. Instead, I chose mostly to blame, be angry, and wallow for several years in how unfair it was that things were never going to be how I wanted them to be. And then I just kept pushing forward, determined to keep striving and making my own perfect life that would make it all better.

I met my first husband when I was 15 while working at my family’s Piggly Wiggly grocery store. When we met, I wasn’t even allowed to go on a date yet and had to wait until my 16th birthday. We were your typical high school sweethearts and after I finished college, we took what we both thought was the logical next step and got engaged. We had been dating for 8 years by the time our wedding date arrived. We had a huge wedding in Charleston and I stressed over every last detail. It had to be perfect, too, of course. What I didn’t stress over or pay much attention to at all was my relationship with Christ or our need for Him in our marriage. In my mind, dating for 8 years was more than enough to guarantee a successful marriage. We weren’t even married 2 years before we separated. How did we last 8 years dating and not even 2 years married? Hadn’t we done everything right? There was a part of me that always thought because we’d been together for so long that it was a given that we’d always be together. There was no work we needed to put into our marriage or conversations we needed to have. I wasn’t interested in learning how to communicate better or addressing any of my shortcomings. When your own personal happiness becomes more important than your marriage vows, it is a slippery slope. When you start focusing solely on yourself and not your spouse, it’s easy to start thinking you’ve fallen out of love. Little things become huge things and your perspective shifts. If it was meant to be, it would be easy. Before you know it, you think surely you’ve married the wrong person and you’re pinning or sharing every quote you can about following your heart and deserving to be happy. Counseling? No way in the world are you going to sit and let some stranger convince you otherwise of something you are already so sure of. That was all me the first time I tried, and failed miserably, at being a wife.

I did eventually realize my selfishness and then I wanted God to help me fix it all. It wasn’t easy for a hard-headed girl like me to admit to being wrong, so when I finally did, I just knew if I prayed hard enough that He would fix my marriage and we’d live happily ever after. But He didn’t and we didn’t. For a while, I was only angry at myself. But later I realized that no matter what had happened, He was God and He had the power to fix it if He wanted to. So then I got angry that He didn’t fix it and I turned again and did my own thing. Living on my own became too difficult so I decided to rent out our house and I ended up moving in with my cousin and his wife who so graciously opened their home to me. I went from being a 26-year-old with a loving husband and a beautiful house to a divorced 26-year-old sharing a bathroom with her 9-year-old cousin. There were a lot of days I had to be forced out of bed. I wasn’t sure how I felt about God anymore because I’d prayed so hard and didn’t get what I wanted. I had let so many people down and I was absolutely broken.

In the summer of 2012, a couple of months after I’d hit rock bottom, a college student from Michigan was in Charleston on a mission trip and she began working with me for the summer. She invited me to her weekly Cru college ministry events and I went with her a few times, but on the weekends I was also still out living the college days I’d never had. I never told her that I was in the middle of a divorce, I was way too embarrassed. She also invited me to go to church with her at Seacoast one Sunday and so I started attending with her regularly. I started to really listen and rethink the direction my life was going. On her last day at work in August before returning to Michigan, she gave me a Bible. In it she wrote a note to me that said it was obvious to her that God wanted to work in and through me and she couldn’t wait to see what He had in store. She also said that she’d be praying Ephesians 3:16-21 for me:

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

 I remember my eyes filling up with tears as I read that and truly realized how deep Christ’s love was for me. He loved me so much that He sent this girl all the way to South Carolina to tell me. I told her my story and how I’d been too embarrassed all summer to tell her what I was struggling with and what a failure I felt like. I continued attending Seacoast on my own after she returned home and I even joined a small group book study that met during the week. I realized that God loved me even though he didn’t give me exactly what I wanted. It wasn’t about that anyway. I needed to learn to love Him for who He was, not what He could do for me. I had been christened as a child, but over the past several months I had begun to hear sermons and read about the importance of baptism as an outward sign of a decision to be committed to following Christ. One Sunday during the morning service, I learned that they were baptizing people that same afternoon in the ocean at Isle of Palms and I knew it was time. No more excuses. I texted a few friends and family to let them know that I’d made this important decision and invited them to come. I knew that since it was such short notice that they wouldn’t be able to make it, but my friend Becky was able to be there and share that experience with me. On Sunday, September 9, 2012 I made the best decision of my life. I’d be lying if I told you that my life was all rainbows and butterflies after that; there are still hard times and there will always be hard times, but it is so much easier facing them with the hope I have in Christ.

Why did I write about all of this? The broken parts of my story definitely aren’t things I am proud of or that are easy to talk about, but I share them because I think it’s important that you can see through my story how easy it is to live your whole life going through the motions, certain you’ve got it all figured out, maybe even thinking that you are a Christian, when in reality you’re missing the single most important thing – a relationship with Christ. What does it have to do with my breast cancer story or this blog? A lot actually. I am certain that I would not have been prepared to handle a cancer diagnosis and its aftermath if it weren’t for that most special relationship. And that relationship was not formed until after the perfect life I built crumbled and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. I have far too much respect for both myself and my first husband to share every detail of our marriage, but I did want to share the tough lessons that I learned through it in hopes that it might encourage someone who might be facing similar struggles or who feels as if they’ve failed one too many times. God can and will bring beauty from ashes. He can redeem even the most broken and ugly parts of our stories and use them for good, but you have to seek Him first. Even after I committed my life to Christ, I struggled for several more years with why divorce was a part of my story. I believed that God had a plan for my life since before I was born and I know He hates divorce, so why did he allow it in my plan? Then I also tried to analyze every part of our relationship and figure out exactly where it went wrong. Should we have gotten married in the first place? I thought being able to explain it and figuring out an answer would help me feel better about it all. It never did. Finally I realized that it’s something I’ll never understand this side of heaven. Some things we aren’t meant to understand. For a while I thought that trying to forget all about that part of my life was the answer. I’d get rid of all the pictures, the mutual friends, the places, the memories, and that would make my heart whole again. Some of those things are necessary in the beginning, but a decade of being together isn’t easily erased. You’ll always find something with your former last name on it or you’ll have to write all former names you’ve ever used. Your old wedding date will roll around every year, and of course Facebook will graciously have some sort of post from 8 years ago today for you. As the years have passed I’ve begun to realize that it’s okay. I can bring him up in conversation and it’s okay. I can look back on those 10 years and smile because they made me who I am today.  Although God has given me an incredible husband and another chance to get it right, you will never hear me say that I’m happy that I got a divorce and that I think it’s a great option. You won’t hear Adam say he agrees with it either because that’s how he got his wife. I realize that I’m imperfect and I own my past mistakes completely, but instead of beating myself up for the rest of my life, I can learn from them and be a better wife now. I can choose to find my identity in Christ and not in my broken past. I can look at it all and see how marvelous God is and how he took a mangled up mess and made a beautiful life for all of us.

That brings me back to John 9:62, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” When you put your hand on the plow, stay committed. Stay committed to the person God called you to marry. Communicate, don’t be afraid to ask for help or to admit your shortcomings. Stay committed to Christ and to following Him. Surround yourself with other believers who can mentor and encourage you along the way. Keep your hands on the plow. And if you haven’t and you know you’ve really messed up this time, remember that God’s grace is amazing and He can redeem all those broken pieces if you will turn it all over to Him. I know because He did it for me.

Choosing Surrender

It looks like it’s been nearly 5 months since my last blog post. I’ve thought about writing quite a few times, but honestly I’ve just wanted to go out and live! After spending the majority of last year inside doctor’s offices and hospitals and feeling sick so much of the time, now I just want to get outside and enjoy life.

Most people want to know if I’m finished with everything now, if I can put all of this behind me. With most things, I am finished. Cancer treatment is over (chemo and radiation). No more nausea, fatigue, burnt skin, or bald head. I had scans in April which showed that there is no cancer remaining in my body (praise!). In April I also had the final part of my reconstruction surgery and my chemo port was removed. The port wasn’t much of a bother to me, but it was tied so closely to chemo that I happily traded it for the small pink scar.

I am learning, however, that even after treatment ends and the cancer is gone, it’s impossible to just pack it all away neatly in a box, push it to the back of your closet and say it’s all behind you. Maybe that is possible for some people, but that hasn’t been my experience. And I’m okay with that, even though I never thought I would be. I remember in the first weeks following my diagnosis how desperately I wanted to go back to the girl I was on February 16th, 2015, the day before the nurse called me with the biopsy results. I wanted nothing more than to just be “normal” again and not wake up every morning and remember that I had cancer. Throughout the year, I felt like every surgery and treatment completion was one step closer to getting back to that girl. While those things indeed put me closer to being healed, I now realize that I was never on my way back to that “normal” life. But I am learning to surrender all of the parts of my life to God, even the parts where my plans don’t align with His at all, and trust that His plan for my life is so much better than mine.

Cancer certainly was not a part of my plan for my life – as loss, pain, and suffering are not ever at the top of our bucket lists. Now, even though I have been healed, my life still looks different than it did before cancer. I thought once treatment was complete, I’d only be going back to the oncologist at SCOA for checkups every 3 months, and eventually it would be longer between visits. In March, I went for my 3 month checkup and found out that I would need additional medication to help prevent a recurrence. It doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, but this medication is an injection that I have to get every month, and I was told I would need to have it for at least 2-3 years. Although I love and appreciate my SCOA family, visiting  every month for the next few years was NOT a part of my plan for getting back to my “normal” life. In April, I had quite a few hiccups following my surgery and my body did not heal as well as I’d anticipated due to the effects of the radiation treatments. According to my plan, it would be a smooth and speedy recovery lasting less than a week. In reality it was many weeks of drains, pain, fear of infection, antibiotics, and driving to see my surgeon a couple of times a week. I’m also now realizing that reconstruction isn’t always as final as I’d once thought and revisions are often necessary, so the surgeries may not really be over. The possibility of a recurrence is also something that becomes a harsh reality, and can create a lot of anxiety when it’s time for a scan or checkup. Somehow the wait becomes a lot scarier once you have already received that call with bad news. Being told that I have to wait to have children for 5 years (due to one of the medications that I take to help prevent a recurrence) has definitely been one of the places where it has been most difficult to surrender to God’s plan. Trying to have my first child at 35 is just not what I envisioned and knowing that I don’t have any choice in the matter is just plain hard some days.

But I think that’s one of the biggest things God has been teaching me through cancer. Our hope has to be found in Christ. It can’t be in the things He can do for us or give us, or that perfect “normal” life that we think would make everything right in our world. I recently read When God Doesn’t Fix It by Laura Story and have been doing the companion Bible study this summer. We have talked about Abraham and the faith he had to have when surrendering things he cared deeply for to the Lord – ultimately his son Isaac. The study asks you to think about what your Isaac may be, something that you hold tightly to that would be very difficult to let go of. I think for many of us, maybe it is a certain object or person, but it also could be the idea of the life you think you are supposed to be living right now, the life where all of the things that are broken never happened and things are going according to the plans you had. When we hold so tightly to the idea of that life – the life where that loved one who passed away is still a phone call away, you have the spouse or baby you have been waiting for, your parents are still married, that disability does not exist, you still have the job you lost, that person you loved didn’t betray your trust –  it becomes very easy to throw a pity party for ourselves when we don’t have it and get stuck there. Even if we don’t intend to, pretty soon we can find ourselves bitter and resentful. These things are hard and heartbreaking, and they happen to every one of us in some shape or form. Trials may look different from one person to the next, but they are inevitable because sin entered the world. I have realized that I have to surrender the idea of that ideal life to God and embrace the life He has given me instead. It’s up to me to make a conscious effort to look for the blessings and good things.It’s up to me to choose joy, even when I don’t feel like it. And it’s not a choice I can make one time and be done, it’s a choice I know that I have to make daily and sometimes even hourly. It certainly doesn’t mean that I never feel sad or angry or disappointed, but I do know that even in those moments God will meet me where I am and He won’t leave me there. He is always patient with me and faithful to lift me out of those low places.

Even though the cancer is gone now, I don’t feel much like that girl that for so long I was waiting to get back to. My life looks different than it did before cancer, and even different than I thought it would look after treatment, but it’s good. Really good. Adam and I moved into our house and celebrated our 1st year of marriage in March. I have a new appreciation for relationships and the small moments that I probably didn’t pay much attention to before. I adore going to visit our friend’s donkeys and goats, and have enjoyed strawberry picking and going to the drive-in movie theatre for the first time. I’m getting used to my curly hair and I’ve been trying some new things, like canning and painting furniture. I even overcame my fears and got certified to scuba dive! I spend less time trying to measure up to the world’s standards and more time resting in the truth that I am loved by my Heavenly Father far beyond what I can comprehend. Eternity and the fact that this is not our permanent home is even more real to me.

Oftentimes in these past few months I have wondered if I really had anything else to say on this blog since it was about my cancer journey and I don’t have cancer anymore, but I’ve realized that even though the cancer is gone, that doesn’t mean God’s work through it is finished. I don’t have all of the answers to anything, but I do know that God can use our stories in ways we could never even imagine. I have seen firsthand how He can take even the most broken and imperfect parts of our stories and use them for good. Too often we are reluctant to share those hard parts of our stories for fear that others will think less of us or reject us, when they are really opportunities to show God’s power to redeem and a testament to his faithfulness. Though it might be a little tough to be transparent and real, try sharing your story with someone and watch God work.

Speaking of transparency, I also wrote a guest post for a friend’s blog recently about my struggles with body image through cancer. You can read it here if you’re interested or share with someone who you think may be encouraged by it.

Thank you for your unwavering prayers, love, and support!

 

My 1st Cancerversary

One year ago today, Adam and I sat on our couch anxiously awaiting 2:30 and the phone call – the call that would either put our minds at ease and allow us to breathe a sigh of relief, or plunge us into a new reality that was too terrifying to even consider. I’ll never forget the way I felt when I heard her voice on the other end, and when she said “Unfortunately, it is cancer.” It still gives me chills. All I remember about the rest of our conversation is how hard I was trying to catch my breath and hold back the sobs so that I could listen to what she had to say. I started writing everything she said on a notepad because I knew I wouldn’t remember any of it. Her first words were still repeating over and over in my head. I’d see a surgeon by Friday, and then possibly an oncologist the next week depending on the treatment plan that was decided upon. It was all happening so fast. I felt like she was speaking another language as I hurried to jot down all of the terminology – Her2, hormone receptor status, growth rate, stage. We spent the next few hours on the Internet looking up everything I’d written down. Being on the receiving end of that call was devastating, but having to then be the one to call my parents and deliver that news was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. There was so much sadness, fear, and disbelief that I felt that day.

February 17, 2015 is a day I’ll never forget, but instead of viewing it as the worst day of my life, I want to celebrate it as a milestone that points to God’s incredible faithfulness. When I heard those words that day, I honestly felt as if someone had told me I was about to die any day. I was terrified of so many things and I had no idea how I was going to face all of the harsh realities that cancer was about to throw at me. It’s been a long and trying year, but God did not forsake me for a moment. Though I’ve been called deeper than I ever could have imagined, His strength and grace have been enough every single day. Whether it was struggling to accept that I won’t be able to have children for a while, sitting down in the chemo chair the first time, staring at a bald me in the mirror everyday, or feeling too weak to get out of bed for days, He has gotten me through it and continues to each day. Now, one year later, I’m a survivor!

 This song is one of my favorites, and it’s especially meaningful today. “Faithful you have been, and faithful you will be”. Ever Be by Aaron Shust

Farewell, 2015

What a year 2015 was! It was a year filled with both immense joy and deep pain. Getting married in March and beginning to build our first house in August are two of the most wonderful things about 2015. We also went apple picking and whale watching, which are two things I’ve always wanted to do. I got to see my little brother graduate from high school and begin college. We saw some of our dearest friends get married, went on a cruise, and Adam was able to see his Clemson Tigers go undefeated. I turned 30 and finally had dinner at The Melting Pot. Although we weren’t able to go on another mission trip, we were still able to volunteer together. We spent a lot of time with our families and friends, and just tried to enjoy our time with them as much as possible.

 

 

Some things this past year were not quite as wonderful. Last New Year’s Eve when I was looking forward to all that 2015 would hold, a cancer diagnosis was not what I had in mind. I was beyond excited for our wedding that we were planning for June. I was looking forward to dress shopping, cake tasting, and marrying my best friend. I’d also already felt the lump, but I wasn’t too concerned. I had my annual doctor’s appointment coming up in February and I’d have it checked out then. A couple of weeks into January, I changed my mind. I am so grateful for the person God placed in my life who shared their own personal experience with me which prompted me to take action. I still never thought it could possibly be cancer, but I felt I shouldn’t wait another month. I called one morning and they saw me that same afternoon. My doctor never mentioned cancer and wasn’t alarmed either, but scheduled a mammogram and ultrasound to be safe. The weeks before that next appointment were uneventful, and I still wasn’t worried. I never expected to be asked to come back an hour later for a biopsy, and then get a phone call the next afternoon that turned my life upside down. If something doesn’t seem right, go see your doctor. Don’t wait until your next appointment, or until you think about it again. Don’t think you’re too young, too healthy, too busy, or anything else. Just go. Had I waited longer, the cancer could have very well spread further throughout my body and made this battle much more difficult to fight.

This is just one of the things that I learned last year that I feel is important to share. I’m no expert on life, nor do I claim to have all of the answers, but there are a few things on my heart that I’ve realized through the process of this journey.

#1  God is good and He is faithful ALL the time. When things seem to be falling apart and you are in your darkest valley, He is there and He will carry you. Exodus 14:14 says “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” He truly will fight for you, and he will give you strength for each day as it comes. There is absolutely no way that I could have fought this on my own. I haven’t come this far because of my own strength, but because of His. I have experienced His love for me this year in such a deeper way, and His grace continues to amaze me. I don’t deserve it, yet He gives it freely to me daily. Even with all of the mistakes I’ve made in my 30 years, He still loves me and remains faithful no matter what. No matter what 2016 holds, no matter how wonderful or how devastating, I know that God will not forsake me.

#2 Show up for the people that you love. Show up for them all the time, but especially when they are going through a storm. Make time to spend with them and be there to do life with them. Show up when you are excited to be there and maybe even when it’s not so convenient for you. Even if you don’t know what to say, say something. There may not be anything that you can say that is going to make their situation better, but that’s okay. They don’t expect you to have the answers, but letting them know that you are thinking of them and praying for them will mean the world. Don’t just ask what you can do, do something. It doesn’t matter how big or small. It truly makes a difference.

These are a couple of gifts from sweet friends. I’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love!

 

#3 Reach out, reconnect, and share your story. Some of the people who have encouraged me the most and made such an impact on me throughout this past year have been people who I never would have imagined, many of them are people who were complete strangers a year ago or who I hadn’t heard from in years. You never know how great of an impact you can make on someone. You just may be the encouragement or voice of counsel that someone has been praying for. Don’t let your pride get in the way. Don’t think it’s been too long, or they don’t want to hear from you, or they will think you’re crazy because they don’t even know you. Don’t think you can’t make a difference. You don’t know how God wants to use you.

 

Yesterday I completed one more part of this cancer journey, radiation. This was the last of my cancer treatments, and I was happy to close that chapter on the last day of 2015! So am I finished with everything now? Not quite. In November, I finally finished the first phase of the reconstruction process and then was able to move on to radiation. A lot of people have asked me how radiation is different from chemo – it is very different. While my chemo treatments were every other week, radiation was every day. Chemo lasted several hours, while radiation lasted 10-15 minutes. The side effects are also not the same. There is no hair loss or nausea with radiation, just fatigue and burns on the skin in the area being radiated. Thankfully, the fatigue has not been too terrible for me, but the skin under my arm is burned and blistered pretty badly. Neosporin, Aquaphor ointment, aloe, peroxide, and Mepilex dressing have become some of my best friends! I could write a whole post about those dressings and how much they’ve helped keep me from being even more uncomfortable the past few weeks. Before I began treatment, I had a CT scan to help my doctor plan my treatments. I got 7 blue ink marks that would be used to help the techs always be sure I was in the exact same position on the table so that the beams could be focused on the correct area. Every day, Monday – Friday I drove to South Carolina Oncology for a treatment. The treatment was always fairly quick, other than seeing the doctor and having blood work once a week. Driving there and changing clothes took more time than the treatment itself. I would lay on a table with my arms over my head and my feet strapped together and then a large machine would move over the top of me and stop several times to deliver the radiation beams. I had to be completely still for a few minutes and then it was over. I never felt anything, almost like having an x-ray. All this was in hopes of destroying any cancer cells that may have been left in my skin or lymph nodes following my mastectomy. Yesterday I completed my 25th and final treatment! The burns are not pleasant, but having already suffered through chemo, radiation really was doable.

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I took this photo yesterday before my last radiation treatment. The last time wearing that beautiful pink gown!

In a few weeks I will start taking a drug called Tamoxifen which I will have to take for at least 5 years. It’s often prescribed for women diagnosed with hormone receptor-positive breast cancer with the goal of reducing the risk of the cancer returning. I also will have another surgery sometime this year, in the spring or summer, to complete the reconstruction process. It will be another major surgery, but hopefully won’t have quite as painful of a recovery as the first one. I am looking most forward to finally being able to sleep on my stomach again! I will also get my port removed during that surgery. My hair is growing back, and it is starting to curl in the back! I’m learning to use hair gel, and soon I think I may need to get my hair dryer out from the back of the bathroom cabinet. Everyone tells me I look great with short hair and asks if I’m going to keep it short. No, I’m growing it back out. While I am so very thankful to have any hair at all after being bald, I definitely would love to have long hair again someday.

In closing, I have one very special prayer request for my mother-in-law who was diagnosed with breast cancer in November. She will be having surgery next week on Wednesday. We are praying for a smooth surgery and recovery, and clean margins. We are also praying that her journey can be a much shorter one than mine and without chemo. Please keep her in your prayers!

Happy New Year!!

 

A Grateful Heart

  Happy Thanksgiving, y’all! Today is the day when many people stop and take time to put into words all that they’re thankful for. It’s amazing how long the list can get when you actually take the time to really think about  those things, but too often we’re more inclined to focus on the other things – the things we don’t have. I’m not just talking about material things, but any circumstance in our life that we feel isn’t working out according to our plan of the way our life ought to be. It doesn’t seem to take much effort to focus on all of the things we wish were different about our lives – the things that we wish would have never happened, situations we hoped would have turned out differently, people who we wish were still around, and those prayers that we’re still waiting for answers to.

  We are always going to have those things. They will look different through all of the changing seasons of our lives, but they will always be there. We have a choice to make each day though. We can dwell constantly on those things that we wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves, or we can choose to focus on that list we are thinking of today on Thanksgiving.  I’d love to be able to say that every day since my diagnosis I have woken up and chosen to be grateful, but some days I’ve struggled to accept this cancer journey and found myself wishing I could just go back to being “normal” again. Thankfully God’s grace is enough and He has gotten me through those days. There have been way more needles, IVs, shots, blood draws, stitches, scans, procedures, consultations, surgeries, and pain medication prescriptions this year than I ever cared to have in my life – a nightmare for the queasy girl who at 19 passed out and hit her head on a water fountain on the way down following a TB skin test. Aside from all of that, I’ve also had so many different emotions to deal with. There were days when I would look at all of the cancer-free people around me and wish I could be like them again. I wanted to go on a honeymoon the week after my wedding, not have surgery to get a port placed in my chest. I did not want my husband to have a bald wife in our first month of marriage, and I definitely didn’t want to spend my summer going through chemo and preparing for a mastectomy. I wanted to be able to get my hair done like all of the other bridesmaids before my sweet friend’s wedding, not be wearing a wig. Sometimes when I see pictures of my friends’ precious babies, I am tempted to start feeling sad that being a mom isn’t going to be an option for me for several years now, if at all. But I know that I have to stop myself, or pretty soon I’ll be throwing a great big pity party for myself. I’m not saying that I never let myself cry or feel sad, those feelings still come, but I’ve learned that I can hope in the midst of that pain and that I can continue to give thanks and praise to God through it as well. I can control how I respond to those feelings and I can ask God to help me. Instead of feeling sorry for myself and letting bitterness take root, I have to choose to look for things to be thankful for. I look for anything, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem. Right now I am thankful to need to use a hairbrush again. Although reconstruction has been a longer process than expected and I will be spending every day leading up to holidays getting radiation, I am grateful that I have finally started I am set to have my last treatment on New Year’s Eve! 

  I am most thankful for the good Heavenly Father that we serve who knows exactly what we need. He answers prayer, and although not always in the way we expect or hope for, always in the way that He knows is best for us. Although I don’t understand why some things happen, I do know that He allows these trials and this pain to help accomplish His plans. It’s my responsibility to trust His plan and not think I have an idea for my life that is better than His. This is my new “normal” and God gave it to me for a reason. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah‬ ‭29:11‬ ‭NIV‬‬

What a difference a year can make…

Lately I’ve found myself often stopping to think about what life was like a year ago at this time. You know, like the Timehop photos everyone posts on Facebook. During the interview that I did last month (if you missed it, you can watch it here: News 19 WLTX Interview), that was one of the questions that I was asked. To my surprise, I really had to think about that answer. What was I doing at this time last year? What was life like before being told that I had breast cancer? Life seems to have been such a whirlwind since February 17th and I’ve been so focused on taking each next step in this battle that I haven’t taken much time to think about what life was like before that day. Since the interview, I now stop to think about it a lot, and it doesn’t make me sad. It makes my heart so full to think of all that God has carried me through in those months, and how much He has worked on my heart in the process. Being able to look back to 1 year ago and see such a drastic difference in so many aspects of my life allows me to appreciate His grace so much more.

As we were sitting in the stadium at Clemson at the first game a few weeks ago, I realized I was wearing the same dress that I wore to the first game last year, but I started thinking about all that had changed since then. Then, it was my first time wearing orange in that stadium (because yes, I’m still a Carolina girl), I had a head full of long hair, I was sitting next to my boyfriend of less than a year, and I was in excellent health. Now, although still in that same orange dress, I was wearing a big floppy hat because I had no hair, I was sitting next to my husband of 6 months, and I was a breast cancer survivor who just went through chemo and a double mastectomy. Wow! What a difference a year makes…

First Clemson game August 2014
First Clemson game August 2014
First Clemson game August 2015
First Clemson game August 2015

There have been many changes to my heart in this year, one of them resulting from one of the most noticeable differences when I look back at photos – the changes in my physical appearance. Losing my hair and my recent surgery have taught me a great deal about losing myself and knowing Him more. Now I will admit that I do miss my long hair when I look back at those photos, but I am then reminded again that physical beauty is not where my happiness lies. I’ve learned to be content even when I don’t like what I see in the mirror. Has it been easy? Definitely not. No matter how many times people said to me “It’s just hair, it will grow back”, it didn’t make facing that any easier. However, I have learned to go to God with these struggles and get my worth from who I am in Christ rather than what I see when I look in the mirror. 1 Samuel 16:7 says “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at, Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.'” I did like my long hair and my old body, but not having either doesn’t mean I that I can’t be content. It’s a choice I’ve had to make, to be content with my physical appearance the way it is. The condition of my heart is far more important to God anyway.

I remember the phone conversation with my nurse in which she told me chemo would likely be my first step in treatment and the first thing I asked her was if I would lose my hair. She told me yes, that unfortunately the chemo drugs used to treat breast cancer cause you to lose all of your hair and it would probably start to happen about 2 weeks following my first treatment. I was terrified to say the least. I remember going to home that afternoon and curling my hair just because I knew it would be a long time before I would be able to do it again.  I decided to get it cut short the day after my first treatment. Many survivors had given me this advice and I thought it would be an easier transition to being bald, if there was such a thing.

One of the last pictures of my long hair - Christmas 2014
One of the last pictures of my long hair – Christmas 2014
Haircut! April 2, 2015
Haircut! April 2, 2015
Another picture of my short hair
Short hair!

I didn’t sport my new ‘do very long because the nurse turned out to be right about the 2 week mark.I pulled out my first handful of hair as I ran my hand through it while in the chair for my second treatment. It was an unsettling moment and I’ll never forget the look on my sweet momma’s face. I knew it would happen soon but I wished she hadn’t been right there beside me to see it. Although I’m not sure if I would have ever been fully ready to lose my hair, I was as ready as I could have been. Like the weeks before chemo that I’d spent wondering what it would be like, I had been wondering what being bald would be like and it was consuming my thoughts. I had already planned to shave it once it started to come out, another piece of advice from survivors, and had been tugging at it all day everyday that week. I wanted to shave it that week before I went back to work after Spring Break so I’d have some time to adjust, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it until I knew it was really going to come out. I knew what I’d been told and what I’d read, but I just couldn’t do it until I saw for myself. I had been praying all week for God to let me know when it was time, so when that handful came out that day, it was somewhat of a relief. We called Adam’s hairdresser that afternoon on our way home from chemo and she told us to come on to the salon that evening. God sent me a sweet blessing on that ride home. On top of feeling tired and sick from chemo, I was feeling all sorts of emotions about what I knew I was about to have to do. I opened my email and there was the email letting me know that the hair I’d donated after my haircut had been received. It was just what I needed to put things into perspective and I felt like God was reminding me that He was using all of this for good, even these things that were so very hard for me to face.

The certificate I got via email just before going to get my head shaved April 2, 2015
The certificate I got via email just before going to get my head shaved April 2, 2015

Adam made the first swipe with the clippers and then very quickly it was done! Surprisingly, I didn’t cry one tear. Again, I felt relief that one more very hard part was behind us.

Adam taking the first swipe with the clippers to shave my head April 2, 2015
Adam taking the first swipe with the clippers to shave my head April 2, 2015
It's finished!
It’s finished!

The days following were filled with a lot of tears, however, and it took a very long time for me to get used to the way I looked when I walked past a mirror. I even had Adam cover the mirror for the first couple of days. I would wrap the towel on top of my head in a turban when I got out of the shower, just like when I had hair to dry, because I would rather look at that in the mirror while I was putting on makeup than my new self. I know being bald sounds trivial compared to other trials people face, but I will be honest and say that those were some very hard days and weeks for me. It did surprise me that I preferred scarves to my wig. I spent time picking out the perfect wig and had plans to wear it all the time once I’d shaved my head, but in reality I have worn it maybe a total of 5 times since April! I always preferred scarves to hats because I liked the feeling of having the back of my neck covered, like when I had hair.

Before the Fight Like a Girl benefit, one of the few times I've worn my wig April 2015
Before the Fight Like a Girl benefit, one of the few times I’ve worn my wig April 2015
Lexie and I being twins with our headscarves
Lexie and I being twins with our headscarves

I kept wondering if I would someday be comfortable going out in public without covering my head at all, but I never was. I had met several survivors who went out bald proudly and they were oh so beautiful, and I admired their ability to do that. I never made it to that point, but it wasn’t because I was ashamed of the way I looked. The only way I know to describe it is that I felt naked. My first day back at work after shaving my head, I decided to wear a scarf because I just did not like the wig. It was a very frustrating morning with many tears at our house! Getting out of the car at school was incredibly difficult, much more so than I anticipated. I dreaded the sad looks I knew I would get and I didn’t want to make people feel uncomfortable. I knew they wouldn’t know what to say to me. I was scared of what the children would say. I know that sounds silly as an adult, but it’s the truth! But you know what, it turned out fine. I prayed before I got out of the car that God would get me through that day and He did. Of course He did, He always does. Sometimes that’s all you can ask for is the strength to face things one day a time, and sometimes one hour at a time. It got easier as time went by and I eventually got used to my new appearance. I can’t say that I always liked it, but I accepted it. Everyone handles that part differently, but it was always encouraging to me to see or hear other women’s stories so I share this part of the journey to encourage other women who may be facing losing their hair.

I am happy to report that my eyebrows and eyelashes are growing back very quickly and for that I am so grateful! They didn’t start coming out until after chemo was over in June, and by the week of my surgery in July, I only had about 3 left! My hair is also growing back and I’ve gone from looking like Charlie Brown’s friend Pigpen to an actual head full of little short hairs. I’m still wearing my scarves until it gets just a little longer though!

Reflecting on the changes in my appearance and the emotions that have gone along with them also makes me appreciate all that God has taught me through this aspect of breast cancer. I have gleaned such a different perspective on life in these months and what is truly important. On October 17th, during breast cancer awareness month, I’ll be participating in the Palmetto Health Walk/Race for Life as a survivor! One of the reasons I am participating is in order to raise awareness. Early detection is so important for beating this disease and my hope is that raising awareness in our community will encourage women to be more vigilant so that they are able to detect this as early as possible! I am also raising funds to help other local women facing breast cancer get the best care possible.  All proceeds from the Walk for Life/Race for Life will benefit Palmetto Health Breast Center. Please consider donating or joining us on October 17th!

Post-Surgery Update

It’s hard to believe it’s already been 3 weeks since my surgery. It’s been difficult to find the time to post between trying to rest and recover, going to follow-up appointments, and preparing for the start of the school year. My surgery went well and I came home after two days in the hospital. It was a challenge to get my pain managed, but I had wonderful doctors and nurses taking care of me. I am so grateful for the many family members and friends who visited the hospital, sent cards and beautiful flowers, and provided meals EVERY night in the weeks following my surgery. We’ve felt so loved and supported as I’ve recovered. I’m healing and the pain has subsided as time has passed which is a huge prayer answered! I went back to work last week and I’m continuing to go through the gradual reconstruction process.

Many people have asked me, “What next?”. It’s a little different than what I’d hoped for, but again I’m reminded that God’s plan is not my plan. Once the initial phases of reconstruction are done, probably the beginning of October, I will begin radiation treatments. This was something I wasn’t expecting, and left me feeling very disappointed. The treatment itself did not upset me, it was the realization that I am not done yet, when I thought that I was. I initially thought that radiation would be a part of my treatment plan when I was first diagnosed, but once I decided on the mastectomy instead of a lumpectomy, I was told that radiation would only be necessary if any of my lymph nodes were found to be positive for cancer during surgery. This wasn’t likely since there had been no swelling or signs of it being present in my lymph nodes during exams, but I still knew there was a chance so I tried hard not to get my hopes up about not having to go through radiation. However, I was hopeful and that’s why I asked for specific prayers about it in my post before surgery. Following surgery, the surgeon reported that my lymph nodes were negative and this is one of the first things I remember hearing from Adam when I was coming out of anesthesia. We were ecstatic and the radiation cloud had been lifted! Two days later, the final pathology report came back just as I was being discharged from the hospital and my surgeon confirmed that all of the lymph nodes that they removed were negative. Later that day when I got home, I started reading through my report to see the good news for myself. Yes, it still said they were all negative. However, I got to one line that made me cringe. There was a line that stated “Lymphatic/vascular invasion…Present”. I didn’t know what this meant, but I felt like anything involving cancer with the word “invasion” as present couldn’t be a good thing. I knew that I would be meeting with my oncologist the following week to go over the report in detail, so I tried not to worry about it. When we met that week, I was told that radiation was strongly recommended after this finding was added to other factors such my young age and larger tumor size. Once I begin in another month or so, I will receive treatment each day for 5 weeks. I was hoping to be able move on from treatment to just recovery, but it will just be a little longer.

The day after I was diagnosed in February, I woke up early before work and spent time in the Word in search of peace and comfort. My world had been turned upside down with that phone call the day before and I craved peace and encouragement. I wanted to know that everything was going to be ok. That morning, I was led to Habakkuk 3:17 -19, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.”  The first part of this verse resonated with me because it seemed to describe what I felt like was going to come along with cancer. Although at that time I knew so very little about what fighting cancer would be like and all that I would go through in the coming months, I did know it would be a season of suffering and loss. The second part of the verse gave me the encouragement I so desperately needed that morning, the reminder that I needed to rejoice in the Lord and cling to the promise that He would be my strength and allow me to face whatever obstacles were ahead. I remember copying and pasting this verse into text messages and sending it to Adam, my parents, and my brother. I found encouragement for myself in this verse, but I also needed encouragement for them. Not only did I want to know that everything was going to be ok, I wanted them to know also.

I write about this now because I’ve realized that I find myself wanting that often, to know that everything is going to be ok. It could be in the smallest of situations, or in something much bigger like facing cancer. The morning after I found out that I’d need radiation, this same verse from February was in my devotion. The notes for it in my study Bible mentioned faith and trusting “God’s providence”. What does that really mean? What am I trusting? I’m trusting that He is in control of all things. I’m trusting that cancer was a part of His plan for me, because nothing is out of His control. He allowed it for a reason and His plan is for my good, even if I can’t see it. Radiation is a part of my treatment and although it surprised me, it did not surprise Him. He will be my strength through this phase, too, and will again enable me to get through anything that lies ahead still. It’s going to be ok.

I also wanted to share that I was given the opportunity to tell my story in an interview with Darci Strickland that will air this Wednesday, August 19th at 5:00pm on WLTX Channel 19. I am honored to be able to do this and be a part of the Buddy Call 19 awareness campaign. I hope that God will use my story and that it might encourage someone else fighting this battle and raise awareness of breast cancer in young women.

Thank you for your prayers! Please continue to pray for healing and strength as I navigate the reconstruction process and face radiation in the coming months.